RogerBW's Blog

BAC TSR-2 03 April 2014

The TSR-2 was to be a highly capable low-and-fast bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. It was famously cancelled in 1965.

Its genesis was in the early SAM era, when the RAF's Canberras and V-bombers were starting to look distinctly vulnerable. It was to be able to fly high and fast until it got near a target, then drop to near ground level, drop a Red Beard 15kt nuclear bomb, and escape.

Almost at once the specification started to change. It had to be able to carry conventional bombs. It had to be able to carry the Improved Kiloton Bomb (100-300kt). Then bombs would be limited to 10kt each, so it would have to carry four of them, two in the bomb bay and two on pylons. Then it would carry stand-off missiles. And so on. Against this changing demand, English Electric and Vickers (being merged at the time into BAC) did their best to build an aircraft that could do what was wanted.

The engines were probably the best feature: a pair of Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojets with reheat, derivatives of the engines used on the Vulcan, and developments of which would power Concorde.

The wing was a small delta mounted high on a slab-sided fuselage. This made for a high wing loading, but the TSR-2 wasn't intended for low-speed work; indeed, it was very stable even at low altitudes, as buffets from rough air had little effect on it. The aircraft could cruise for extended periods at Mach 2, and briefly go faster, though airframe heating was a concern.

Problems with the landing gear dogged the early test flights, but development was going well when the project was abruptly cancelled even before the second prototype had flown. Costs had become quite high, money was generally tight, and even though most of the risks had actually been dealt with the project was shut down and all tooling destroyed with extreme haste; this meant that the prototype couldn't be used even as a research aircraft. Many of the project team, made redundant at no notice, moved to the USA: the UK clearly no longer had the capability of sustaining a first-rate aircraft industry. (The cancellation remains controversial, and at least some of it seems to have come from the new Labour government's desire to destroy what had been seen as a high-profile Conservative project, even at huge financial and technical cost.)

The planned replacement was the F-111. This turned out to be even more expensive than the TSR-2 would have been, and the purchase was in turn cancelled before any aircraft were delivered. In the end, the RAF got the Phantom and (from the Royal Navy) the Blackburn Buccaneer, then the Jaguar, then the Tornado in 1982: finally, an aircraft that approached in capability what they might have had in 1970.

If it had been made to work, well, who knows? It might have been another white elephant like the B-58. Or it might have been the best low-altitude strike plane in the world.


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:54pm on 03 April 2014

    What annoys me is that it was cancelled for all the wrong reasons, and the Prime Minister was lied to in Cabinet. The wings are supposed to fall off when you are taking the stress model to it's ultimate limit, but this was passed to the PM as another sign of a failing project. A very dark episode for the UK aviation industry, and those responsible for the unseemly machinations to get it cancelled should hang their heads in shame. We'll never know if it would have been better than what we got instead, but it would almost certainly have been cheaper.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:02pm on 03 April 2014

    These were the days when Labour could still be fairly explicitly anti-military, and I think that was a big part of it, combined with not wanting to allow a project started by the Conservatives to be a success, and at least one of the high-level advisers being explicitly in favour of buying everything from the Americans whatever the technical merits.

    Though the suggestion I've found that it should be capable of being armed with 2" unguided rocket pods seems frankly perverse. This is not the aeroplane you want for close-up air support. The platform that can do everything well is something that people keep asking for (and makers keep promising) even though it never works.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:51pm on 03 April 2014

    I remember mid 1970s UK politics as a child, complete with strikes, power cuts, the dustbins not being collected etc. Even then I thought it looked like bullies in the school playground. Arthur Scargil later made me the man I am today, which is vehemently anti trade union and mildly anti labour.

  4. Posted by Phil Masters at 10:49am on 04 April 2014

    One of my university economics supervisors, yay these many years ago, once mentioned in passing that he'd just been down to Duxford, and had apparently bemused the people he was with by recognising the TSR-2 prototype that was parked there. Because he'd been on the treasury team that had recommended the cancellation.

    The conversation didn't last long enough for him to go into details, but his one-line summary was that the numbers just didn't add up. From his point of view at least, it seemed, this was a purely financial decision (and not a difficult one).

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 10:55am on 04 April 2014

    It would be interesting to learn more of that side of the story. Obviously the cost could have ballooned hugely during flight tests, but the engineers didn't think it would, and I suspect it would still have ended up cheaper than the alternatives of the failed F-111 deal or the messing about with Phantoms and Buccaneers.

    (One would assume an economics supervisor would not succumb to the sunk costs fallacy in either direction.)

  6. Posted by Phil Masters at 11:07am on 04 April 2014

    As I said, this was a long time ago - and I saw said supervisor's obit a few years later, so asking him wouldn't be an option these days. I don't know if any relevant Treasury memos have ever been released; presumably it'll happen some time, unless they and MoD decide that the truth about how they make some decisions should never see the light of day.

    And, of course, financial decisions are highly subject to GIGO effects. The Treasury may have had a good view of costs for the TSR-2, but if they were getting misleading comparative data about the costs of alternatives, or the requirements to be met, they could still come to a conclusion that was wrong in hindsight.

  7. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:41pm on 04 April 2014

    My understanding is that the F111 turned out to be a lot more expensive than the accountants cancelling TSR-2 were told it would be. And then putting Rolls Royce engines into the Phantom turned out to be a lot harder and more expensive than anyone thought it would be, even Rolls Royce admitted only a few years later that it was a mistake and we should just have used the US engines the Phantoms were designed to use.

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 12:49pm on 04 April 2014

    Yeah; the trick is that if you're dealing with aircraft procurement you should ideally have enough domain-specific knowledge to know how aircraft procurement goes. And I suspect the civil servants, and I know the ministers, didn't have that knowledge. Of course buying from overseas leaves you vulnerable to currency fluctuations too.

    It's understandable that the F-111 should have been the first reserve; the raw performance numbers mostly look quite similar, and the TSR-2 comes out slightly inferior (particularly when you take ordnance load into account rather than assuming it'll be "one nuclear bomb"). But the F-111 has only about half the range, which for the RAF arguing for scattered bases (including the infamous shifting of Australia) was vitally important.

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